Mention that someone is in an unhealthy or abusive relationship and their first question is, “Why don’t they leave?” If you have never been through an abusive relationship, this sort of response might seem logical.
Dr Sophie Moagi, a clinical psychologist says, “marriage, children, and shared finances are often huge reasons that people in abusive relationships stay in them. This dependency is heightened in relationships where one partner is differently abled. But there are also similar factors that affect young people’s decisions to stay in relationships, including shared friend groups and living situations. People in abusive relationships often feel embarrassed to admit that their partner is abusive for fear of being judged, blamed, marginalized, pitied or looked down on. People in abusive relationships often attempt to break up with their partner several times before the break up sticks. On average, a person in an abusive relationship will attempt to leave 7 times before finally leaving for good.”
Without an understanding of abuse, or if one has fortunately never been in an abusive situation themselves, it is difficult to imagine why someone who has suffered seemingly horrifying mistreatment would stay in a situation of danger, distress, and degradation. Out of human curiosity, the question “ why didn’t she leave” is a natural and logical one. Research has identified that women do not leave for a variety of factors, both external and internal, including economic dependency, the shortcomings of the criminal justice system, inadequate social support from workplaces and the community, as well as internal psychological processes. Since abusive relationships are “bad” and are marred by control from start to end, it makes it very difficult for a victim to leave with their sense of self-trust eroded.
Further, many victims fear that leaving their abusers may lead to an escalation of abuse, many female victims of abuse feel a necessity to leave only when they feel there is a real threat that they may be murdered; it is a very real possibility that until that point, victims may stay living with the abuse because it is relatively safe in comparison to what could happen if they were to attempt to break free. Society normalizes unhealthy behaviour so people may not understand that their relationship is abusive. When you think that unhealthy or abusive behaviours are normal, it is hard to identify your relationship as abusive and therefore there is no reason to seek help. Oftentimes, people in emotionally abusive relationships may not understand that they are being abused because there is no violence involved. Also, many will dismiss or downplay emotional abuse because they don’t think it is as bad as physical abuse. It is hard for those in abusive relationships to leave their partners after they have continuously been made to feel worthless and like there is no better option for themselves.
Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “People believe that if they stick it out, things might change. A lot of people in abusive relationships stay in them because they love their partner and think that things will change. They might also believe their partner’s behaviour is due to tough times or feel as though they can change their partner if they are a better partner themselves. Never stay in a relationship in which you count on someone to change their behaviour for the better. There is social pressure to be in a perfect relationship and this might be the major reason people find themselves in abusive relationships. There is incredible pressure to be in a perfect relationship, and social media only accentuate this pressure.”
After every abusive incident comes a make-up honeymoon phase. Often when an abusive situation happens, it is followed by the abuser doing something nice or apologizing and promising that they will never do it again. This makes their partner minimize the original abusive behaviour. He or she showers the victim with attention, kindness, gifts, and other acts of love, along with false promises to never allow him or herself to act in an abusive way again. In this stage, with the victim feeling reassured the abuse is unlikely to return. Over time, however, the cycle repeats, with each phase becoming shorter and shorter. In addition, society perpetuates a ride-or-die mind-set, those in unhealthy or abusive relationships might stay with their partner or get back together after a break up because they feel pressure to not give up, forgive and forget or “ride it out.” Pop culture glamorizes being a “ride-or-die” for your friends and partner, making people out to be in the wrong for leaving their partner. And while being loyal is a great thing, a good friend or partner would never endanger or hurt you.